Sunday, February 13, 2011

Can the Book Survive?

Abbey of St Gall Library Switzerland
I wrote a post back in 2008 about the posible death of the book (here) and concluded that it would survive. I've also written about e-picture books (here) and in a separate more recent post I've considered the question 'Are Picture Books Dying?' (here). A few weeks ago Nikki Barrowclough wrote an interesting article in the Good Weekend magazine of the Sydney Morning Herald, in which she considered the question too.  This has motivated me to write again, because the question isn't simply can traditional publishing survive, or even literature. We need to ask a number of different questions to unpack the original question:

  • Will literature survive? Yes! The form and delivery might change, but literature will be written and published.
  • Will paper books survive? Yes, but there will be casualties, with the most likely being some less adaptable publishers, libraries and bookshops.
  • Will scientific journals and reference books survive in paper form? No!
  • Will the way we read be changed by e-books? Yes!

The answer to the question Barrowclough posed is complex.  The book as an object will survive, but increasingly it will be in an electronic form rather than simply being a paper object. At the 8th International Conference on the Book (St Gallen, Switzerland) that I participated in during November, there were a number of sessions that considered the future of books. Amongst the presenters were representatives from three of the world's major publishers, academics, content providers, IT specialists and librarians who collectively suggested that:
  • Scientific journals will cease to be produced in paper form within 5-10 years.
  • Increasingly, authors will publish e-books themselves, creating major problems for publishers and even bookshops.
  • Bookshops will only survive if they change to become places where lovers of books meet, chat, eat, share books (in whatever form) and purchase e-books and paper books as well as associated products. Some are already moving down this path.
  • The power of authors will increase as they realise that traditional publishing routes can be circumvented. This is happening already.
  • Libraries will survive but in different forms. They will continue to be archives for books and will still act as mediators for readers, but they will also be virtual hubs and gateways for online resources
  • Electronic libraries and virtual communities of readers will grow in importance and might well lead to more reading of 'books' not less.
  • There will be a different relationship to libraries with readers moving between virtual and 'real' sites for book exchange, discussion and advice; we already see this in universities where our students rarely visit 'real' libraries.
  • Children's literature will be much slower to move from paper to e-book formats, and may not make the transition completely. There are obvious challenges here and the book as an object has great significance for the younger reader, Durability for the young toddler will also be an issue.
  • The importance of the book as an aesthetic object will remain; many of us will still want to hold, smell and stroke books, and visit great libraries like that at St Gallen.
Some Challenges

There will be a lot of challenges as we negotiate this period of transition from paper books to far greater use of electronic books. At the moment the sales of electronic books are low in the non-scientific categories, but they will continue to rise.  What will this mean for our libraries? How do we ensure access to books for those without the resources to buy their own books online? How will we sustain libraries as 'real' communities where lovers of books dwell?

How do we ensure that as electronic forms of the book grow, that children don't end up just 'playing' with books rather than reading them? I have already signalled in my post on e-picture books that children are easily distracted with e-picture books, and play more with the interactive elements on electronic books rather than reading the text (here).

How do we make sure that the reading process isn't changed by electronic books (as it probably is) with detrimental effects for the young reader in comprehension, early learning and enjoyment?

How do we ensure the longevity of books? Is there a chance that the life of an electronic book might be substantially less than the paper book? Some of the world's greatest books have survived for over a thousand years; can we be confident that electronic storage will be able to match this?

Some opportunities

While I've voiced some concerns above, I also see great possibilities. The most obvious one is that books should be available at a cheaper price making them more accessible.

Second, translation of books from one language to another is much simpler and can even be controlled by the reader!

Third, authors should have more power in this new electronic world with the ability to publish and sell their own books if they don't like what publishers do for them.  We have seen this already in both the music industry and the book industry.

Fourth, having books available electronically should increase our access to books in all their forms. Many of us marvel at how much easier it is to buy books today thanks to the Internet. Some of us (like me) have already discovered how much faster and cheaper it is to get books delivered to a reader like the iPad or the Kindle.

Summing Up

There is no doubt that the electronic book is going to increase in popularity in the next few years.  This will cause some adjustments for readers. We need to make sure that nothing is lost in this transition and that all of the best possibilities I discuss above are realised. We have a great opportunity to increase access to books and knowledge using virtual books, but there will be issues of justice and access that we will need to deal with. The issues are no different than for paper books, but there might just be ways to ensure that we do even better at providing access to the world's books for children and adults.

Related resources

'Can the book survive?' Nikki Barrowclough (HERE)
'Alice', the iPad and new ways to read picture books (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A review of some popular apps' (HERE)
'The electronic book: The death of the book?' (HERE)
'Literacy and the iPad: A second review of children's literature apps' (HERE)
'Are picture books dying?' (HERE)

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